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“If a house is burning, people will jump out the window”: The war on drugs and the border crisis

Murrieta, California

A spectacle at the border drew the world’s attention: dozens of far-right protesters in the southern California desert held signs and chanted while attempting to block busloads of children from entering their town. Murrieta, California was suddenly on the map.

This is a struggle over “illegal” immigration, a problem related to border control, we are told. The media coverage has largely focused on the political questions raised by an influx of mostly Central American children—unaccompanied by their parents or other adults—into the United States. The numbers arriving in the country are indeed shocking: from 6,800 children in 2013 to almost 100,000 this year, if projections are correct.

Most republican elected officials, predictably, say to deport them all. The crisis is Obama’s fault, they claim, pretending the president in his first six years hasn’t deported more people than all prior office holders combined. The GOP narrative says that Obama’s generous immigration policies sent the message to Central Americans that their children will be accepted in the United States, and granted citizenship.

The facts about the Obama administration's actual policies don't fit into the hallucinatory narrative that he's "soft" on immigration, but that doesn't matter much for the spectacle. No matter that Obama has deported nearly four million people and is seeking funds and expanded powers to deport these children, too. No matter that Obama is asking congress to repeal a Bush administration law that makes it slightly more difficult to deport Central American children seeking asylum. The political narrative doesn't have space for these inconvenient truths.

But besides misrepresenting basic facts about policy positions on both "sides" of the immigration debate, the cynical political theater around the Murrieta crisis obscures the central issue at stake in the influx of Central American refugee children into the United States.

At the heart of the crisis lies the decades old war on drugs.

Sonia Nozario's must read op-ed in the New York Times describes the situation in Honduras, which many of the children are fleeing:

Gangs arrived in force in Honduras in the 1990s, as 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha members were deported in large numbers from Los Angeles to Central America, joining homegrown groups like Los Puchos. But the dominance in the past few years of foreign drug cartels in Honduras, especially ones from Mexico, has increased the reach and viciousness of the violence. As the United States and Colombia spent billions of dollars to disrupt the movement of drugs up the Caribbean corridor, traffickers rerouted inland through Honduras, and 79 percent of cocaine-smuggling flights bound for the United States now pass through there.

Narco groups and gangs are vying for control over this turf, neighborhood by neighborhood, to gain more foot soldiers for drug sales and distribution, expand their customer base, and make money through extortion in a country left with an especially weak, corrupt government following a 2009 coup.     

In Honduras, which has by far the highest murder rate of any nation in the world, the narcos control the public schools, forcing children to use and sell drugs and teachers to pay a “war” tax in order to remain in classrooms. Kids are afraid to go to school. Sexual violence and murder are rampant.

Girls face particular dangers — one reason around 40 percent of children who arrived in the United States this year were girls, compared with 27 percent in the past. Recently three girls were raped and killed in Nueva Suyapa, one only 8 years old. Two 15-year-olds were abducted and raped. The kidnappers told them that if they didn’t get in the car they would kill their entire families. Some parents no longer let their girls go to school for fear of their being kidnapped, says Luis López, an educator with Asociación Compartir, a nonprofit in Nueva Suyapa.

Milagro Noemi Martínez, a petite 19-year-old with clear green eyes, has been told repeatedly by narcos that she would be theirs — or end up dead. Last summer, she made her first attempt to reach the United States. “Here there is only evil,” she says. “It’s better to leave than have them kill me here.” She headed north with her 21-year-old sister, a friend who had also been threatened, and $170 among them. But she was stopped and deported from Mexico. Now back in Nueva Suyapa, she stays locked inside her mother’s house. “I hope God protects me. I am afraid to step outside.” Last year, she says, six minors, as young as 15, were killed in her neighborhood. Some were hacked apart. She plans to try the journey again soon. Asking for help from the police or the government is not an option in what some consider a failed state. The drugs that pass through Honduras each year are worth more than the country’s entire gross domestic product. Narcos have bought off police officers, politicians and judges. In recent years, four out of five homicides were never investigated. No one is immune to the carnage. Several Honduran mayors have been killed. The sons of both the former head of the police department and the head of the national university were murdered, the latter, an investigation showed, by the police.

In response to this humanitarian nightmare—a nightmare in large part born from and sustained by drug prohibition and the demand for illegal narcotics in the United States—the Obama administration has asked congress for nearly $4 billion to beef up border patrol and speed up the deportation process. The republicans say Obama isn’t going far enough, and should be able to manage the deportations of nearly 100,000 children without that much money. Meanwhile, many of the kids at the center of what passes for this debate are languishing in detention centers or US military bases.

The United States has spent billions of dollars on the miserable war on drugs—militarizing our police forces and borders, incarcerating millions of our own people, and building a vast surveillance state. The billions of dollars wasted on drug prohibition have not made a fraction of a dent in the drug trade. But drug prohibition has thoroughly destroyed Honduras and seriously weakened other Central American nations, leading to the crisis the United States government now finds itself in with the influx of refugee children at the border.

Organizers, community groups, and government officials must come to a swift conclusion about what to do with the young people who have already made it to the United States, after risking their lives to escape violence at home. But even any short term deal to grant the kids asylum status as refugees—the best outcome of the immediate crisis—will fall short unless we address the underlying problem. Like in many US communities, there is a direct line connecting drug prohibition in the US to systemic violence in Central America.

From Chicago to Tegucigalpa, children are bearing the brunt of decades of US drug prohibition. It’s up to adults to protect kids, and that means ending the war on drugs. No serious conversation about the controversy in Murrieta can ignore the root of the crisis.

As immigrants' rights advocate Michelle Brané said, "If a house is burning, people will jump out the window." Instead of simply finding new homes for those displaced by the raging flames of drug prohibition, we need to put out the fire.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.